Spice dominated the trade between Asia and Europe for centuries and the oriental lore of processing roots, seeds, and bark into food enhancers inspired western travelers to seek various detours around the Arab middlemen profiting from the lucrative East-West trade route.
Adventurous voyagers stood to reap fortunes from their success. Failures were many.
In 1493 Christo Colon returned from the New World with tobacco and slaves, but the absence of spices disappointed the Spanish monarchs.
Seven years later Vasco de Gama rounded the Horn of Good Hope for the King of Portugal, however the Arabs retained the monopoly on the Spice Trade.
In 1521 Ferdinand Magellan and a fleet of five ships sailed west from Spain destined for the Spice Islands of the Moluccas. The voyage across the Pacific tested the sailers' endurance, as scurvy, starvation, and murder ravaged their ranks.
Their commander was killed in a battle on the Philippines and only fifteen expedition members out of the original 237 crew survived the circumnavigation. The two returning caravels were wrecks, yet the cargo of spices enriched the survivors, because they stopped at the famed spice isle of Tidore as well as Ambon in the Moluccas.
Over the next centuries the Dutch, French, English, Portuguese, and Spanish fought numerous wars for control of these islands.
Manhattan was exchanged to the Netherlands for a small island in the archipelago and considering that the Dutch had acquired that foothold on North America for 60 guilders or the price of several thousand tankards of beer, the trade seemed like an even swap at the time.
In 1991 I sold a 5-carat diamond to a well-heeled couple from the Upper East Side. My commission bought my second round-the-world ticket from PanExpress on 39th Street for a one-way journey of JFK-LAX-HONOLULU-BIAK-AMBON-BALI-JAKARTA-SINGAPORE-BANGKOK-PARIS-LONDON-JFK.
My friends and family were worried about this voyage.
During the Iran-Iraq War Kuwait had been slant-drilling into Rumaila oil field. Iraq's ruler Saddam demanded compensation for this theft and massed 300,000 troops on the border. The US ambassador had said, "We have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts."
Saddam considered that comment as a green light for invasion and his army overwhelmed Kuwait within days.
The Saudi rulers feared the invaders' threat to its rule over Mecca and President Bush had amassed a coalition to oust the Iraqis.
I tried to explain to my friends and family the difference between Indonesia and Iraq, but their sense of geography had been ruined by the IT'S A SMALL WORLD ride in Disney World. Iraq, Iran, Israel, India, and Indonesia were all I-nations. None of my friends could finger Indonesia on a map. My father was more than familiar with the region.
"Your Aunt Bert sailed through those islands at the age of eight." Her father had been a whaling captain in the 1870s.
"There wasn't a war on the horizon." My mother wanted nothing bad to happened to her second son.
"That war, which isn't a war yet, has nothing to do with Indonesia."
"It's a Muslim country. They're all connected same as the Irish." My mother was a Catholic and even more so a devout Hibernian. We understood fights.
"Iraq is thousands of miles from Indonesia. Don't worry, I'll be fine." Kuwait was 8000 kilometers from Jakarta.
"Biak is my first stop." I had free-dived its pristine reef the previous year.
"I was out there in World War II and fought off Biak in the Battle of the Sump. Japs wouldn't surrender, so the marines burned them out of the caves. Nasty business," my Uncle Dave said at a goodbye dinner at the North End restaurant. "There ain't nothing there."
"That's what I like about it."
"You be careful. Those people don't value life the same way we do."
Uncle Dave coughed hard. He was seeing doctors for a chronic cough. His choice of cigarettes was Pall Mall.
"I'm a lover not a fighter." I had been a peacenik throughout the 60s. 70s, 80s, and 90s.
"I know different." Uncle Dave had bailed me out of a Quincy jail after a fight with a gang from Southie. Boston in the late 60s belonged to the tribes.
"I've changed now. All peace and love." I couldn't remember that the last time I fought someone. "Plus those people are nice."
"All headhunters and cannibals, if I remember correct."
""They don't eat people anymore."
"They'll eat anything they can get their hands on, if they're hungry, but have a good time." Uncle Dave cuffed me $20. "Have a good drunk on me."
The next day I returned to New York and packed my bags for my trip. I arrived at JFK three hours before the take-off and the Pan-Am 747 took off on time.
In LA and Hawaii my friends expressed their concern about traveling to the world's most populous Islamic country. I told them, "Tidak apa-apa."
It meant no problems in Bahasa Indonesia. They were impressed with my knowledge of the local language, even if I spoke with a Boston accent.
The next leg was from Honolulu to Biak.
In Biak no tourists offloaded the Garuda flight from LA. I booked a room in the Dutch hotel across from the airport. I was the only guest.
That night I listened to the news on the BBC World Service. My Sony World Radio received news of US troops and their coalition allies massing on the border of Kuwait. I was betting on the West. We had better tanks.
The next day I sat at the hotel and watched scarred Japanese veterans of the Pacific War wandered through the graveyards of their fallen dead. They stayed one day and flew back to Tokyo. None of them spoke English. I nodded with respect.
At night days I drank cold bottles of Bintang and smoked kretek cigarettes laced with cloves. The aroma lingered on my fingers. The cough lasted a little longer.
This was the tropics. The water was clear and warm. The coral cliffs began twenty feet beyond the shore. Sea turtles and parrotfish fed off the current. I snorkeled for two weeks. I tried calling my Uncle Dave twice. There was no answer at his house in Quincy.
Ambon, the capitol of the Moluccas, was my next stop. A diplomat attached to the Indonesian consulate in New York had suggested a lay-over with his uncle, a government official on the Christian Island. I gave the older man a bottle of Johnny Walker Black. No one in Asia drank Johnny Walker Red, unless there was no Black.
"You have wife?" James asked with an unsparing directness.
"No." I was used to this line of questioning.
"You have baby?" Asians regarded bachelorhood as a curse.
My mother agreed with their opinion and I replied no wishing my answer could have been yes, but then said,"Maybe one day."
Indonesia was 95% Muslim. Ambon ran against the grain, but everyone on Ambon was a mixture of Malay and Papuan except for the Javanese deported from their overpopulated island. They worked as pedicab drivers. A few jeered at me. I was the only white person within a thousand miles.
"Saddam # 1. Bush no good."
I agreed with their second sentiment and I considered myself in exile from the land of the GOP.
James lent me his car and driver for a tour of the island. We visited an old Dutch fort, giant eels eating eggs in a river, and a beach on the north coast of Ambon. The driver pointed to mountains across a broad channel.
"Seram. Have big magic. Men fly in sky. Bad magic."
"Bad magic. No tourist go that Seram."
"Tidak pagi. I not go." Bahasa Indonesian was an easy language. No articles. No tenses. Bagus was good. Bagus-bagus was very good. "Pagi ke Tidore."
"Tidore. No mistah go Tidore. Banyak Muslim. Go to Bali." The driver was dumbfounded by my choice. The young wanted off this island. Jakarta was their dream. Not another island forgotten by time.
"Saya ke Tidore." Dropping the verb to go was a common linguistic trait in Bahasa.
"Semoga berhasil." Good luck could always trump magic..
We returned to the city to drink the Johnny Walker with James. He mixed it with honey and ice. It was their way.
Afterward James took me to the chicken farm. Young girls served older men beer. This scene was played out everywhere in Asia, Europe and the USA. We drank to Rambo. No one toasted Saddam or Bush. Religion and politics were off-limits in brothels.
I showed the girls pictures of Manhattan. None of them believed the pictures were real.
Around midnight I returned to my harbor hotel. The Bugis sailors were preparing for a morning departure. Ropes creaked on the masts. The design of their prahu dated back centuries. Indonesia had thousands of islands. The prahu were the connection.
I was overcome with deja vu and blamed the honey and then the whiskey.
My Irish grandmother had come to America on a ship.
The sea was in our blood.
I entered the quiet lobby. The hotel staff was watching the TV. US and Coalition soldiers loaded bombs onto jets. Saddam had been our ally during the I-nation War between Iraq and Iran. The dictator hoped for a reprieve. He should have been packing his bags for exile in Switzerland. I tried to call my parents.
No one answered the phone on the South Shore. I thought about my parents. They had to be worried about me. I hung up the phone and returned to the hotel.
The next morning I took the morning flight to Ternate. James and the driver waved good-bye at the terminal.
I was the only 'mistah' on the plane. The flight stopped briefly at Bata, the old prison island, continuing its flight over the Molucca Sea. Small boats cut wakes of white. The stewardesses served sandwiches and beer too.
I had two and showed photos of my family.
One attractive stewardess asked if I had a wife.
I was embarrassed to say no.
The pilot announced our approach. There were no delays in landing. Our plane was the day's only arrival.
After arriving in Ternate I picked up my bag from the carousel and walked outside the terminal.
Volcanoes dominated the horizon. The air was fragrant with spice. The taxi drivers were surprised to see me. Their faces were Javanese.
Several hostile words were muttered under their breath.
It meant 'dog'.
I pulled out a $10, which bought a smile from a driver.
He took me to the best hotel on the island.
"Here safe. No problem for mistah."
He was happy to hear a 'orang asing' speak his national language,a though none spoke Tidore, the Papuan tongue of the Moluccas.
I was the only westerner at the hotel. The manager's name was Mohammad and he said, "You can stay, but please do not leave the room."
"Why not?" I had a good idea why.
"Ternate people like Saddam. He is Muslim. No one like Dutch people." Mohammad had been on haj to Mecca. He had seen the world. His belief was for the good of man, but he remembered the rule of the Netherlands.
My room was on the 2nd floor. I stood on the balcony. Minarets silhouetted the early evening sky. Moonlight bathed the volcanic cones. Magellan's successor, Juan Sebastián Elcano, had admired the same vista in 1521.
Joseph Conrad had written about these islands in VICTORY.
Jack London haunted his books with blackbirds, pearlers, and beachcombers.
My uncle Dave might have smoked a cigarette on the deck of a battleship off these two islands. The BBC was broadcasting a quiz show. I was hungry.
The manager was surprised to see me in the lobby.
"Mistah no go."
"Makan-makan." Eat was an easy word to remember in Bahasa.
"Okay, but go eat fast. Come back faster."
Mohammad arranged a motorcycle ride to the harbor. The fat driver knew a good harbor side restaurant.
Warungs lined the beachfront. Men walked with men. Women walked with women. The driver stopped at a stall with stools. Pop mixed with traditional Indonesian music blared from tinny speakers. I sat down and the waiter spread dozens of plates across a table. A one-armed man in a salt-stained shirt drank a beer and pointed to a plate of black meat.
"Terima kasi." I accepted his advice. The meat was a little tough, but delicious. I ordered seconds.
A murmuring swelled at my back. People were gathering behind me.
The one-armed man hid his beer.
This island was 100% Muslim.
I ate the second plate with dispatch and ordered the bill. "Rekening."
"Saddam # 1." The chant was loud on the first try and even louder on the second.
I figured the crowd numbered about 40. Their eyes were red. Amok came from the Malay language. It meant going crazy. A man with one arm stood at my side. Someone called him Baab.
Twenty more men joined the anti-western mantra. The waiter delivered my bill and moved aside with speed. I stood slowly, as if nothing was wrong and turned around to face the odds.
100 to one.
An old man stared at me. His clothes were in tatters. He had been waiting to hate a white man for decades and I was the target for his spittle. It was time to go.
My hand went to my wallet and then I picked up the rekening to read the order.
One word stuck out on the bill.
I had seen the word before.
'Beware of the dog." I held up the bill to the old man. In Latin it was caveat canum.
"Saya makan angin?"
"Angin." His eyes focused on the bill. "Dua angin?"
"No, I did not eat 'angin'." Two plates, and I would have ordered 3rd if the crowd had not interrupted my dinner.
"Mistah makan angin," the old man announced to his followers and pointed to heads in the kitchen.
"The crowd laughed with mirth. No mistahs ate dog. "Kamu makan angin."
The mob's blood was up. The temperature was in the high 80s. Only magic could save me and I cast a spell with my next word.
The crowd of men had not expected a compliment for the cuisine of the island. They laughed and the one-armed man pulled my hand.
"We go. Now."
I exited through a gauntlet of hands clapping my back. They followed me back to the hotel singing the chorus, "Angin # 1."
I said nothing about Rambo and the hotel manager asked the mob to disperse.
They chanted 'angin, angin' into the night.
Mohammad was happy nothing bad happened to me.
It had been a close call.
Back in my room I listened to the BBC. US fighter jets were hitting Iraq positions. Allied Air superiority was countered by missile attacks on Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Te next morning I took my breakfast at the hotel.
Mohammad advised against a sightseeing tour and I wrote a few more chapters of NORTH NORTH HOLLYWOOD in my room. My female protagonist was sculpted from old memories of my ex-girlfriend. I couldn't remember her phone number, but the hotel managed to secure a connection to the USA.
My mother and father were relieved to hear my voice. Uncle Dave was in the hospital. His lungs were shot. I asked if I should come home.
"No, but Uncle Dave will be happy that you asked for him." My mother and he had been friends for over 40 years.
"Tell him I'm staying out of trouble."
Over the next few days my forays from the hotel were few.
In the afternoon I ventured around the island and across the straits to Tidore, whose hills were blanketed by clove trees. The people on that island seemed to be ignorant of the war. Only a few houses sported TV antennae.
I swam at a beach at the end of the road. The current was too strong to snorkel.
The Moluccas stretched north into terra incognita.
Across the sea lay Manudo. Rough Guide said that the diving off the nearby atolls was exceptional. A ferry crossed the strait in two days. I booked passage. It was the end of January.